Belfast, shipbuilding, and the game of billiards that changed the world

It is almost universally known that Belfast played a pivotal role in the history of shipbuilding. However, amidst the mania for all things related to the most famous ship built in the city, it can often be overlooked that Belfast produced ships that didn’t sink, too. It may not have the fame of RMS Titanic, but the development and launch of RMS Oceanic and her sister ships in 1870 may have been one of the most pivotal developments in world history.

This fascinating article from the Washington Centre for Equitable Growth argues that 1870 was an inflection point for world trade. Virtually overnight, the time and expense of shipping goods and people by sea collapsed. The Oceanic made the journey from Liverpool to New York in nine days; in 1800 the equivalent journey took over a month. Previously, agricultural products more or less had to be consumed within a short distance of where they were harvested. Now, food could be shipped around the world. It was the dawn of the first age of globalization, when the economies of the world started to become intertwined with each other as never before.

The genesis of the Oceanic Steam Navigation Company, better known as the White Star Line, the company that produced the Oceanic and would go on to build the Titanic, was a game of billiards. Gustav Schwabe, longstanding business associate of Edward Harland and the uncle of Gustav Wolff, invited Thomas Ismay to his home in West Derby, Liverpool. Ismay had recently purchased the flag and goodwill of the bankrupt White Star Line in 1868, and was determined to build a business plying iron ships on the north Atlantic route.

Schwabe was a wealthy shareholder in John Bibby & Sons, a shipping company who had purchased a large number of ships from the recently formed Harland & Wolff partnership. Unable to increase his stake in that company, he made an offer to Thomas Ismay. Over a game of billiards, he offered to finance Ismay’s ambitions, but with one precondition; that the ships be built by his nephew’s company in Belfast. Eager to see his dreams of building a shipbuilding empire become reality, he agreed. The Oceanic Steam Navigation Company was formed with capital of 400 shares of £1,000 each. Amongst the investors were Edward Harland and Gustaf Wolff. The outcome of this game of billiards was the dawn of Belfast as an industrial powerhouse, and an impact upon world trade which would eventually transform the world.

The partnership between Harland & Wolff and the White Star Line would prove to be an astonishingly successful one. Edwin Harland designed the ships, but Thomas Ismay suggested a number of design innovations that set the Oceanic apart from her peers, such as a wide saloon that allowed all passengers to dine together, larger cabins and larger portholes to give passengers a better view. Transatlantic travel turned from a slow, uncomfortable affair into one which was both swift and comfortable.

Another key person in the transformation of shipping that the Oceanic would herald was the Scottish engineer and shipbuilder John Elder, although he had no direct involvement with neither Harland & Wolff nor the White Star Line. John Elder made a revolutionary series of improvements in the efficiency of steam engines which were secured through a number of patents in the 1850s, and it was with the expiry of these patents in 1870 that Harland & Wolff were able to incorporate these revolutionary engines in the Oceanic.

John Elder
John Elder

It is difficult to overstate the impact that Elder’s innovations would have on shipbuilding. Prior to the 1850s the most efficient steam engines consumed coal at a rate of 4½ lb of coal per indicated horse power per hour, but Elder’s innovations meant that his engines consumed only 2½ lb per indicated horse power per hour. This was an astonishing increase in efficiency; it was no exaggeration to say that this development meant it was possible for the first time in history to cross the Pacific under steam power alone. Elder’s innovations would be one of the most disruptive acts of “creative destruction” in history; he effectively ended the era of sailing ships and single-handedly brought about the age of steam.

The effects on the world economy would be dramatic. The graph below shows the volume of world trade from 1850 until the advent of World War I; having increased gradually from 1850 to 1870, trade exploded from this point onwards.

World Trade 1850-1913

This explosion in world trade had a major impact on people, not least because it reduced the price and the volatility of supply of essential foodstuffs. Prior to the 1870 the price of wheat, an essential staple, was both high and volatile. As there was no cost effective way of shipping the product long distances, crop failures could have a catastrophic effect, with the resultant spike in prices having the effect of food becoming unaffordable, leading to famine.

Wheat Prices 1850-1913

Now that wheat could be shipped cheaply from where it was produced to where it was needed, both prices and volatility fell. Note how prices in Chicago, close to the breadbasket Great Plains area of the United States were historically lower than prices in London and New York. In the age of steam, this wheat could now be shipped anywhere. Food was now cheaper across the world, freeing up surplus income for people to spend on other things other than meeting their basic needs. The era of globalization had begun, and world would be changed forever.

The shipbuilding flair of Harland & Wolff, the entrepreneurial drive of Thomas Ismay and Gustav Schwabe, and their ability to take advantage of John Elder’s revolutionary new engines, meant that the White Star Line and Harland & Wolff would combine to make a product that would change the course of history. As well as the transformative effect on world trade, the iron hulled steam liner would allow for cheap and fast movements of people across the world, including the movement of armies. The Oceanic marked the dawn of the modern era, and it was in the shipyards of Belfast that this new era was born.



A qualified accountant and data analyst, interested in politics, economics and data. Twitter: @peterdonaghy